No Rush & No Regrets

Once a Perennial Wanderer and Traveler, Montecito Folksinger Tom Rush Now Rarely Strays Too Far From Home

There are two guitar cases in the entryway of the Montecito home folksinger Tom Rush shares with his second wife, Renée Askins, and their 7-year-old daughter, Sienna.

“They’re there because they’re almost always on the way in or on the way out,” Rush says, his smile as warm as his still resonant baritone-tenor, both still tinged with a twinkle of humor.

But it’s not entirely true.

Sure, at one time, Rush averaged 300 concerts a year, amassing more than 1,500 live dates in one five-year stretch from 1969-74 at the height of his popularity. But he's been more or less taking it easy for most of the three decades since, raising one family and starting another, all the while scaling back his annual public appearances to a “mere” 50-60, although he says last year’s count tallied 67.

More likely, the guitars in the hallway are like a cowboy’s spurs and boots – the tools of a trade he’s plied so long he doesn’t ever feel the need to put them away.

Rush is credited with “discovering” Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor because he was the first to record any of their songs – before the artists themselves – on his 1968 album titled after one Mitchell composition, “Circle Game.” (The album also included Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves” and Browne’s “Shadow Dream Song” as well as Rush’s biggest self-penned hit, “No Regrets.”)

Just last month, both Browne and Mitchell showed up on consecutive nights to Rush’s shows at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. But he waves off any sense of pride, instead calling those early connections ones of mutual benefit.

“They’re just three people whose songs I happened to sing who went on to fame and future,” he says. “If I helped them, that’s great. They certainly helped me. I was desperate for some songs and these guys provided them for me and I’m eternally grateful.”

Rush, 66, is a true throwback: a real folksinger, the kind who excels at interpreting other people’s songs that weren’t written for them. A guy who makes a song his own, no matter who wrote it or how personal the original version.

“I think there’s a fairly good number of us still around,” Rush says, but when pressed he can’t name anyone who operates the way he does – just a man and his guitar, so true for so long.

“I guess I am a bit of mongrel in that regard,” he finally agrees. “I suppose a true singer-songwriter doesn’t do anybody else’s stuff. I remember Jackson Browne telling me at one point that he wished he were a good enough singer to do an album entirely of other people’s material but that he felt he was obliged to write his own. I feel no such compunction. I’ll do the best songs I can find. If I wrote some of them, that’s great, but I don’t really care.”

Rush admits that he’s discovering less new material he wants to sing as the years roll by, but he says it’s mostly because he’s spending less time looking.

“I should listen for more, but I can’t seem to get around to finding the time. I believe there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but I feel fairly constrained because I hear great songs all the time that I don’t think I should sing. I’m quite fussy about what I take to the stage.”

The thing is, he can’t quite put his finger on what it is that makes a Tom Rush song.

“I can’t say what characteristics I’m looking for because I don’t think there are any,” he explains. “The only common denominator I’ve ever discerned is visual imagery. And I guess there has to be a believable character I can relate to. Other than that, I like serious songs, silly songs, fast and slow songs, sad songs and happy songs. Although I do tend to shy away from waltzes.”

Rush can’t even delineate exactly how he turns a song into his own, although he’s willing to share the process.

“I listen to it a bunch, but as soon as I learn it, I stop listening to the original, because I want it to drift apart from its mooring and go off into territory that I’m unfamiliar with,” he explains. “Then it becomes a question of playing it a lot and trying to figure out what feels the best. It’s more an intuitive thing than an intellectual process. I feel my way through and try to figure out how to convey to the audience what I feel.”

The folksinger does still occasionally compose, although the output remains miniscule. “Squeezing out one or two songs a year is a pretty good clip for me,” he says. “I’m still keeping up with that.”

“What I Know,” the most recent Rush original that matters, was written for Renée for Valentine’s Day 2006.

“I knew I was in deep trouble because I was on the road,” he says. “I finished it up in a hotel room in Cleveland and then e-mailed it to her, which is probably not the most romantic way to deliver a personal present.”

But that was one of the rare times in recent years that Rush has been away from Montecito at important moments. His family has owned property in the village for at least three generations, and his parents bought a home on Summit Road on the Santa Barbara border way back in the early 1950s to escape the cold New England winters. They gave it to Tom at the rate of 10% a year until he owned it outright sometime in the early 1990s.

Tom and Renée spent a few weeks during winters here later in the decade, but then made only occasional visits to the area after Sienna was born, spending most of their time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Renée was instrumental in the successful effort to restore wolves to Yellowstone. At one point, they moved 14 times in four years, counting summer and winter relocations. But when they needed to find a stable situation for Sienna’s schooling, the thought of another Wyoming winter left them both cold.

“We were just going to return to the house on Summit Road, but when we scouted the school situation, we decided we liked Montecito Union better than all the private schools,” Rush recalls.

So the family is in the strange position of leasing out their own home while they rent a house within the school district.

“It’s been worth it going through the contortions so that Sienna could go there,” Rush says. “Having a kid restructures your whole existence. Everything has to center around them. Now I try to arrange my performing schedule so that I’m not gone all the time. As much as I love playing, I’d still rather be at home with the girls.”

Unfortunately, the owner of the house in which they’re living is trying to sell, so the family is looking for something else within the district. (If you know of any suitable rental that qualifies, you can contact Rush directly via e-mail at earth2tom@earthlink.net.)

In the meantime, Rush is playing a “thank you” concert for Montecito Union, a free private event on Thursday, May 11, open only to the extended school family. The general public can hear Rush locally when he shares a co-headlining date at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, May 19, with Canadian singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester as part of the Sings Likes Hell concert series 150th show celebration.

And, as he’s been singing for 40 years, Rush still has “No Regrets.”

“I get paid for having fun,” he says. “I’m having a good time and I make a good living, so I have no complaints at all.”